The Radical Jesus
The readings for Sunday, October 12, 2003, the Twenty-Eighth Sunday
of the Year, are Wisdom 7:7-11; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30.
Scripture scholars remind us that the historical Jesus was more radical
than his followers, even those who gave us the Christian Scriptures. Yet
today’s Marcan Gospel passage contains a very radical teaching —
one which most modern Christians ignore. In this case, the first three
evangelists seem to have passed it on exactly as the historical Jesus
Like all Scripture passages, we best understand this pericope when we
put it back into the environment which created it. During Vatican II’s
initial reforms, many Catholics wanted to know how the post-conciliar
church differed from the pre-conciliar. “What do we have to do now,”
they asked, “that we didn’t have to do before?” Jesus
heard similar questions. His goal wasn’t to found a new religion;
he was a reformer of the religion he already professed — Judaism.
He and his first followers often dealt with people who wanted to know
the difference between old and reformed Judaism.
That’s why today’s passage begins with the rich man asking,
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus basically
responds, “If you do what the law of Moses tells you, you’ll
achieve eternal life, but you won’t be a Christian. My followers
are concerned with more than eternal life. They’re committed to
recognizing and being part of God’s kingdom right here and now.”
The kingdom of God (or the kingdom of heaven) is how Jesus refers to God
working in one’s everyday life. To experience that phenomenon and
freely take part in it was the major thrust of his reform. It didn’t
take him long to figure out that peoples’ attachment to wealth was
one of the obstacles stopping them from entering God’s realm. “How
hard it is,” he points out, “for those who have wealth to
enter the kingdom of God.”
Since Jesus ministered in a culture and religion in which wealth was regarded
as a sign of God’s blessing, his disciples were “amazed at
his words.” But instead of backing down, Jesus states his belief
in even stronger terms. “It is easier for a camel to pass through
the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
He agrees that, for humans, to give all to the poor and make them their
only security is impossible. Yet, he encourages his disciples to remember,
“All things are possible for God!”
Jesus’ demands for reform go far beyond either ancient Judaism or
modern Christianity’s demands. Forgetting that Jesus addressed these
words to all his followers, we sleep content tonight knowing there are
a few religious men and women out there who are vowed to practice poverty.
Or we brush the whole passage aside by misinterpreting Jesus’ statement
about all things being possible for God, falsely thinking God will permit
us to keep our wealth and still let us enter God’s kingdom.
No wonder the author of Hebrews refers to God’s word as “living
and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between
soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and
thoughts of the heart.” As we hear in the Gospel, carrying out that
word separates the men from the boys and the girls from the women.
Yet as both Jesus and the author of Wisdom remind us, if I’m faithful
to that word “... all good things together come to me ... and countless
Jesus was driven to share his insights about life with his followers.
He wanted us to experience more than just a surface existence, to reach
a level on which we could be part of God working in our lives. To accomplish
this, Jesus preached a reform which later developed into Christianity.
Perhaps so few today reach those same insights because we spend more time
concentrating on the institution of Christianity than we do on reform.